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The Inheritors is, in a single word, ambitious. In typical Golding fashion, it takes the run-of-the-mill concept of how a novel should be put together, and shreds it into the wind. Lord of the Flies was example enough of how trend-setting Golding was from the very beginning, and The Inheritors, his second novel, is no different.
A tale following Neanderthal man’s first contact with Homo Sapiens, it puts the reader directly into the shoes – or…furs – of characters quite literally on the brink of inhumanity. The unusual mode of storytelling puts one in mind of the diversionary literary devices used in Flies, and also of those he’d use later on in works like Pincher Martin.
Published in 1955, it can at times seem outdated to the modern reader, especially if you know your science, but there’s plenty of evidence that Golding had done his research on the theories of the time.
The protagonist, Lok, is a lower-caste Neanderthal in a small family group who refer to themselves as The People. The family have just moved to their summer feeding grounds after a long winter. Inhabiting an unnamed island, they have simple lives and simple tools, cooking over open fires and using animal stomachs for pots.
But trouble is looming. The elderly alpha male is growing sick, and there is little food.
Matters are quickly complicated by the appearance of strange objects in the forest, the disappearance of the People’s best hunter, and strange pillars of smoke on the horizon.
The discovery of New People on the island shatters the People’s fragile reality. These new ones are different: they carry sticks with stone tips, they move in hollowed-out logs upon the water, and they are cunning.
Lok is soon being looked to by the people to take over as the new alpha male, which he is quick to shy away from. They’re all poorly prepared, therefore, when the new threat attacks from the forest, leading to a mad dash across the island to save the People’s young ones from captivity.
The novel passes in a blur of Lok fumbling to understand what is happening. The least intelligent of the People, he has often played the part of the family clown. The People don’t seem to converse in the manner modern humans are accustomed, but instead ‘share pictures’, which can be interpreted to mean a complex exchange of concepts through eye-contact, facial expression, gesticulation, or perhaps some other means – though I would stop short of claiming that Golding intended them to possesses any kind of telepathy.
Lok, however, is often said by the other characters to ‘have no pictures’, easily close enough to the modern description of an ‘air-head’ to give a firm idea of his standing among them.
Golding also depicts the Neanderthals as lacking in the ability to understand many things humans take for granted, such as where water in a container has gone after it has been poured, or that an arrow may be launched as a projectile from a bow.
Yet they are by no means simple-minded. They appear to have complex social structures, including a sense of humour, honour, love, and sorrow. They’ve also developed a concept of life after death, bury their deceased, have ritual rites they perform as a kind of funeral, and even an Earth-deity called Oa.
All this indicates that Golding was conscious of falling into the trappings of earlier thinking, which had typically been quick to paint pre-human ancestors as squabbling cavemen who conversed in grunts and beat each other with clubs.
The structure, however, is more experimental. The prose is often disjointed and omits the most basic sentence structures, even connectives at times, in-keeping with the idea of Lok’s limitations. Make no mistake, this is not an easy read. In fact, I often found myself at a loss to understand what was happening, and had to return to earlier pages to piece together events.
Also, there are inconsistencies in just how lesser the Neanderthals’ intellects are, with Lok at times seeming wholly inhuman and incapable of abstract thought, and then at other times feeling intense degrees of empathy with human beings.
Further, though no blame can be attributed to Golding, there are details that go starkly against the modern scientific consensus. These include things such as the People’s limited tool-use, lack of constructed dwellings, and inability to speak in complex sentences. There is plenty of evidence that Neanderthals were every bit as advanced as modern humans, and had detailed cultures that may have rivalled our own.
Despite these shortcomings, however, I find myself glad for having tackled the novel. It leaves a lasting impression days after its completion, with the true depth of events striking home only after it’s been put down, as though Golding’s prose has unspooled in the back of one’s mind, and bore fruit over time. Though I found the pages dense and hard to get through, I very much enjoyed Golding’s use of imagery and the aberrant concepts of ‘pictures’ to describe the world through eyes not-quite-human.
The Inheritors received much praise after its release, and rightly so. But it never reached the dizzying fame of his first work, which I feel is a great shame. Without a doubt, despite its shortcomings, this is an underrated piece of work. I heartily recommend people delve into these pages at some point. It’s no rollercoaster, but it’s certainly a refreshing take on the modern novel.
Harry’s Rating – 4 Stars
Book Review – The Inheritors, William Golding – by Harry Manners, 23/03/2014
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